All we need to do is ‘Keep smiling’: Bert Turnbull’s Story

It might be thought that, with the signing of the Armistice in November 1918, servicemen and women across the world could look forward to an early return to their homeland. However, the reality for many men from Wales was that it would be months, and sometimes up to a year, before they landed back in Britain. The Roath Road Roamer, the parish magazine of the Roath Road Methodist Church, tracked the fortunes of 460 servicemen from the parish throughout the war and told their stories through a series of letters, photographs and reports.

 

Possibly one of the most celebrated characters in the Roamer was Bert Turnbull.

 

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The Roamer estimated that, during the course of the war, Bert served on more fronts and travelled more miles than any of his fellow ‘Roamers’.  Born in Middlesbrough, he had lived most of his life in Cardiff with his mother who was originally from Tredegar.  At the outbreak of war he was 19 years of age and was working as a gas fitter’s lad. As a member of the Territorial Army, Bert was called up in the days leading up to the conflict. It is difficult to believe that, in July 1914, just 12 days before the outbreak of the war, he could have had any idea what the next five years had in store for him as he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) as a Private.

 

The Roamer aimed to provide a photograph of every one of the service men and women featured in the magazine. Bert Turnbull appears in the November 1917 edition with a photograph taken in Cairo. In just three years he had risen through the ranks and was now Staff Sergeant Bert Turnbull RAMC serving at the 45th Stationary Hospital, Egyptian Expeditionary Force.  Although Bert was posted to many fronts he did not serve in France or Belgium. Instead, in 1915, he sailed with his Field Ambulance Unit through the Mediterranean to Egypt where he joined the forces being assembled for the assault on the Dardanelles. Field Ambulance Units operated immediately behind the front line and often only a matter of a few hundred yards from the fighting. Their task was to set up a network of Dressing Stations to treat the wounded before they were moved on to the larger Casualty Clearing Stations. It was a dangerous and difficult task working unarmed under gun and shell fire and dealing with badly wounded men. Bert Turnbull would, therefore, have had a baptism of fire at Gallipoli. It was a short and bloody campaign with the Allied armies sustaining over 50,000 casualties and Bert was one of the wounded shipped back to Egypt to recover.

 

In the following years Bert Turnbull served with the RAMC in both Egypt and Palestine before being transferred to Salonika in the autumn of 1918. Although it was only months before the Armistice was signed, the army in Salonika was involved in a series of desperate and costly battles as they attempted to prevent German and Bulgarian forces being transferred to the western front.  In a rare break from the front line Bert was home in Cardiff on leave in October 1918, just weeks before the end of the war. After three years away from Cardiff it might have been hoped that the fates had intervened to end Bert’s days on active service. However, this was not to be the case.

 

On 11 November 1918, as crowds celebrated the armistice in Cardiff and across the world, Bert was on a troop ship in the Mediterranean Sea heading for Turkey. He landed on 13 November and the Roath Road Roamer published a letter from Bert from Constantinople dated 16 December 1918:

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I received your letter at the above address. Just fancy it arriving in such a place! I wonder if the Roamer has reached Berlin yet? Rather strange that you should have written your letter on 13th November as that was the very day on which we landed at Constantinople. My word what a reception we had. I think that the only people who were not pleased to see us were the Germans who were there in occupation but have all run home to Germany since. The people of England are grumbling about the price of things at home. But they would not believe the high price of things her. When I first arrived I was speaking to an Englishman who was interned here at the outbreak of war. He was liberated on our arrival and went to fit himself out with clothes. He paid £11/10/- for a pair of shoes!! A loaf of bread weighing 12 oz costs 1/8. Sugar is 12/6 a Ib. The electric cars are unable to run owing to a shortage of coal. The water supply is turned on from 2pm to 4 pm daily at present but the first fortnight we were here it was only turned on every third day. It is a pitiful sight to see the very poor people begging in the streets [DAWES6, edition 51, page 4].

 

He also added, enigmatically:

 

The next time I write it will be from another country, sorry I cannot tell you as the Censor is still employed here.

 

Sure enough Bert’s war service was far from over. In April 1919 the Roamer reported on a celebratory reception held at the Church for returning servicemen where the …refreshments were abundant… and …the smokes were greatly appreciated… Electric lighting had been installed in the Sunday school class rooms especially for the occasion.  Those attending were asked to sign a register as a record of ‘Roamers’ back in Cardiff. Jokingly, some said that they were reluctant to put pen to paper in case they were signing up for further service in the Army, currently mounting a campaign in support of the White Armies in Russia.

 

The Russia campaign, however, was no joke for Bert Turnbull. The same edition of the Roamer also contained a further letter from Bert and this time it was from even further afield:

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Many thanks for the January Roamer which I received a few days ago. I noticed my letter which I wrote from Constantinople was in it. Well, here is letter from a few hundred miles up the Black Sea. So you have had some of the boys back once more. Good luck to them! I hope my turn will come soon. Don’t you think it is about time that I stopped ‘Roaming’? In khaki 12 days before war was declared. Served in Gallipoli, Egypt, Palestine, Egypt (second time) Salonika, Turkey (Constantinople) and Russia. I was a time expired man in 1916 but still have to ‘carry on’. Never mind the day will soon come now. All we need to do is ‘keep smiling’ [DAWES6, edition 54, page 4].

 

The British Army in Salonika had been deployed to the Caucasus. The campaign was mounted, in part, to occupy territory formerly controlled by Turkey but also to support the White Russian Armies. Bert, therefore, found himself based at Batoum in Georgia. Fortunately, it was a short lived campaign and the next time we hear from Bert it is good news – at last.  In June 1919 the Roamer reported:

 

I am sure you will be glad to hear that one of your Roamers will soon be home. I am leaving this place for Blighty. What a journey! I dread it! [DAWES6, edition 55, page 6].

 

By August 1918, some 9 months after the signing of the Armistice and sporting the Riband of the Territorial Long Service Medal, Bert Turnbull was back in Cardiff and on ‘Civvy Street’.

 

Two months later Bert’s story had a happy ending when the Roamer reported in October 1919:

 

Our ‘Roamers’ are still getting married and we offer out hearty good wishes. Staff Sergeant Bert Turnbull, who holds the ‘Roamer’ record for seeing active service in the greatest number of countries, was married to Miss Irene C James on 7 September [DAWES6, edition 57, page 3].

 

This was the last edition of the Roath Road Roamer. Of the 460 servicemen tracked in the Roath Roamer, 42 died during the war. At the end of October 1919, 30 were still waiting to be demobbed. For Bert and many others, the end of the war, while celebrated wildly in November 1918, was a long time coming.

 

Tony Peters, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer

 

A copy of the Roath Road Roamer is held at Glamorgan Archives. Roath Road Methodist Church was situated on the corner of City Road and Newport Road (known at Roath Road until 1874). Built around 1860 and modified in 1871, it was a substantial building reputedly able to seat 1000. It was severely damaged during an air raid on Cardiff on 3 March 1941 and demolished in 1953.

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